Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kodachrome we didn't see much of each other lately, but now that you're gone I'll miss you. R.I.P.

R.I.P. Kodachrome
The venerable 75-year-old slide film Kodachrome dies of old age today, as the world's last processing lab shuts down its complex machinery.
An unlikely pilgrimage is under way to Dwayne’s Photo, a small family business that has through luck and persistence become the last processor in the world of Kodachrome, the first successful color film and still the most beloved.

That celebrated 75-year run from mainstream to niche photography is scheduled to come to an end on Thursday when the last processing machine is shut down here to be sold for scrap.
Photographers loved Kodachrome for the film's fine grain, rich colors and long life in dark storage. Last year, when Kodak announced it was stopping production, with enough chemicals left to process through the end of 2010, I paid a visit to some of my old Kodachromes. After more than 30 years, this image of a peeling billboard is tack-sharp, the whites are as pure and pristine as ever, and the reds still just as rich and saturated.

Kodachrome, we didn't see much of each other for quite a while, but you were my favorite when I was shooting color film, and it's sad knowing you won't be there anymore if I ever pick up a film camera again. R.I.P.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Two Americas at Christmas Time

Happy Holidays for Some but Not for All
There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight

-- Bertholt Brecht

I've always been somewhat ambivalent about sculptor George Segal's Depression Bread Line in the lobby of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). The sculpture is hauntingly evocative of its subject, but it seems oddly out of context in its elegant, Cesar Pelli-designed surroundings. And since the space is often used for receptions and other public gatherings, there's something surreal, almost verging on decadent, about guests cheerfully mingling and socializing alongside these sad figures without seeming to see them, or to feel their pain.

Walking along State Street last night I looked thrugh the window and saw these still, silent figures lined up for a handout they will never get. Their solemn forms blended in the window with the festive reflections of holiday lights across the street. It was a poignant reminder of the two Americas, different economic worlds, which this Christmas are further apart than they've been for many decades. The ones in brightness we see all too well. The others, all too often, slip out of sight.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiday magic on Lake Wingra: Pickup hockey under a string of lights on an improvised rink.

Holiday Lights and Night Hockey  on Lake Wingra
If you drove along Monroe Street last night and looked down Knickerbocker toward Lake Wingra, you would have seen these lights that appeared magically on the lake along Wingra Park. A group of friends have been doing this for several years now. They get together during the holidays, set up lights and a generator, shovel out a rink, and play several pickup hockey games over the course of the holidays on frozen Lake Wingra. With benches along the shore and a fire in the grill, it all has a magical, improvised, old-fashioned quality. When the holidays are over, the lights -- like holiday lights everywhere -- are packed up and put away until next year.

Holiday Lights and Night Hockey  on Lake WingraThe full moon last night added a special touch, a natural counterpoint to the string of manmade lights lighting up a little patch of ice. The sounds were wonderful in the night air, skates cutting the ice, sticks siding along the frozen surface, and the puck's solid thwack. It all sounded different than on an artificial rink. The entire frozen lake seemed to resonate with the sounds. Hockey the way it was originally played, buddies getting together just for fun on a frozen lake.

I also shot a bit of video, which didn't capture the light the same way as the stills -- or the sounds. What you hear is mainly the generator in the foreground. (Note to self: Don't shoot video next to a generator.) But it does give some idea of the action. And I like the dog entering from the left and fetching its master, shepherding him home for dinner perhaps.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Celebrating the Solstice with candles, a magical ice lantern and edible ornaments for the critters

Winter Solstice 2010We celebrated the Winter Solstice at Tiedeman's Pond with candles and homemade ornaments. T again "baked" one of her magical ice lanterns in an antique cake tin. We made biodegradable (and edible) ornaments for the critters, who always can use a bit of nourishment this time of year (for more detailed pictures of the ornaments see this Flickr set).

Winter Solstice 2010The the flickering candles provided a a bit of visual warmth alongside the frozen pond as night fell. When we left, the candles were still holding out against the encroaching darkness, and the sunburst form of the ice lantern was like a promise of renewal, the return of the sun, and better times ahead.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Computational photography replaces or supplements optics with computer power

Computational Photography
This abstract diptych consists of the right side of two pictures I took with my point-and-shoot of a white door.

The lines on the right show the curved "barrel distortion" (only slightly exaggerated for illustrative effect in Photoshop) you normally get near the edge of the frame with most zoom lenses at the wide setting (at the tele setting they normally produce some "pincushion distortion"). The straight lines on the left are straight out of the camera. The photo on the left was taken with distortion control set to on.

The distortion control was done, not optically, but by the camera's computer in processing the image. It had the effect of making the lens of my relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot the functional equivalent of a lens costing many times what the entire camera did.

It's a part of something called computational photography that constitutes what might be called the second phase of digital photography, one that is rapidly changing what we can do with our cameras. In the first phase, digital cameras used their computers to render the images produced by electronic sensors in a form that roughly mimicked what film could do. Now the computers in our cameras are adding a host of functions that could never be performed with film, or only performed awkwardly and expensively.

Computational photography is about replacing or supplenting optics with computers. Distortion and perspective control (eliminating slanting lines when a camera is pointed upward) are two examples. Another is automatically compensating for lens flaws that are always present to a greater or lesser degree. Designing a lens is always a matter of trade-offs between various kinds of aberrations and distortions. The better the trade-offs are managed, the more expensive the lens. But now manufacturers can optimize lenses for inexpensive production and correct the results in software, which is much cheaper.

Another example is the High Dynamic Range (HDR) capability that's being built into more and more cameras. By shooting two or more pictures in quick succession and combining them in software, the camera can render pleasing shadow detail without blowing out the highlights.

This is just the beginning. As this article about computational photography in the NYT points out, experimenters are already doing things that seem straight out of science fiction, such as cameras without lenses and cameras that can shoot around corners using lasers.

In other words, a lot of today's equipment will become obsolete as we change our ideas of what digital photography can and should do -- just the way manufacturers like it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fighting the war on terror by flying blind

The Air Force blocked its personnel from accessing websites belonging to news media that published (some of) the Wikileaks cables.
WASHINGTON — The Air Force is barring its personnel from using work computers to view the Web sites of The New York Times and more than 25 other news organizations and blogs that have posted secret cables obtained by WikiLeaks, Air Force officials said Tuesday.

When Air Force personnel on the service’s computer network try to view the Web sites of The Times, the British newspaper The Guardian, the German magazine Der Spiegel, the Spanish newspaper El País and the French newspaper Le Monde, as well as other sites that posted full confidential cables, the screen says “Access Denied: Internet usage is logged and monitored,” according to an Air Force official whose access was blocked and who shared the screen warning with The Times. Violators are warned that they face punishment if they try to view classified material from unauthorized Web sites.
The reason is supposedly that Air Force personnel are not allowed to view classified materials for which they don't have clearance. Which is a joke. According to news reports, some 3 million people had clearance -- that's how Bradley Manning got the documents in the first place. There's still no evidence of anyone actually being harmed as a result of the leaks. What the cables did do was throw some sunshine on a lot of dark corners that the public should know about. Mainly, they embarrassed a lot of people in governments around the globe. Apparently avoiding embarrassment has now become a matter of national security.

Nothing prevents Air Force personnel from accessing the websites on their personal computers, so the whole thing is primarily an exercise in institutional hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. But it does send a strange symbolic message: It's like declaring your intention to fight the war on terror while voluntarily blindfolded. We used to call that cutting off your nose to spite your face.

It's not quite up there with Joe Lieberman's suggesting the New York Times be investigated and possibly prosecuted for espionage, but it's getting there.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Scott Walker didn't just turn down high speed rail. He also turned his back on Wisconsin taxpayers.

When Scott Walker's turned down nearly a billion dollars in federal money for high speed rail and allowed it to go to California, he clearly was so blinded by ideology and political commitments to the Tea Party right that he lost sight of both common sense and simple equity. In particular, he missed an opportunity to redress a longstanding imbalance between federal spending and taxes in Wisconsin. If he really cared about the taxpayer, he would have jumped at this chance to give something back to Wisconsin taxpayers for all their federal tax dollars.

Between 1981 and 2005, Wisconsin paid out billions more in federal taxes than it received in federal expenditures -- like a lot of Blue States, as it happens. In that entire time period, the best Wisconsin did was two years, 1989 and 2000, when it actually received back 90 cents on every tax dollar it sent to the feds. More often, it was in the low 80-cent range. You can check the figures yourself with this database, which starts with Alabama -- a state that, in contrast, in 2005 received back $1.66 in federal spending for every tax dollar it gave the feds. And there are states that do even better. For example, New Mexico got $2.00 back for every dollar it sent the feds in 2004. (Type Wisconsin into the search box and hit enter to get our year-by-year figures.)

Scott Walker would apparently rather keep sending our federal tax dollars off to other states while getting relatively little in return. Nice for other states, bad for Wisconsin. The LA Times probably put it best: Thanks a billion, cheeseheads.

Why I like photography

Why I Like Photography
Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity. -- Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

I love to write, but writing has always been hard for me., and I made this drawing years ago to vent my frustration. I used to think my difficulty arose because I learned English as a second language as a child, and that some deep inner key to the language remained forever hidden. But that was a copout. Writing is difficult for everyone. What was it that Red Smith once said? "Writing is easy -- all you have to do is just open your veins and bleed."

Flaubert's famous quote focuses less on the agony of the individual writer than on the total inadequacy of something as insubstantial as words to express human experience. What's really remarkable is that, despite all the limitations of written and spoken words, we try to communicate with them at all.

Fortunately, spoken and written language is not the only way to communicate. We have eyes to see, and fingers to point, and humans were saying "Hey! Look at this!" long before the words existed. That's part of what the prehistoric cave paintings were all about, and the impulse has never gone away. The only difference is that today we point with cameras.

That's why I like photography. Sometimes pointing is the only way to say what I want to say.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

University Avenue Holiday Lights in the rain that preceded our blizzard

University Avenue Holiday Lights in the Rain Before the Blizzard
A classic winter mess: Rain and warm moist air, preceding an arctic cold front blowing in blinding snow and sweeping winds, followed by subzero cold spell in which to try and recover. Welcome to the Midwest. Meanwhile, the rain made the University Avenue Holiday Lights look more magical than ever. T and I stopped to look at them on the way home from the store where we stocked up for the storm, as we don't expect to see any snowplows on our street tomorrow.

Illuminating the Nativity on Tokay Boulevard

Tokay Boulevard Nativity Scene
I love to find excuses to drive to the Whitney Way Walgreen's this time of year, because it's an excuse to drive by the electric sheep on Tokay. I don't mean to slight the electric camels, but nothing says Christmas like electric sheep. They really brighten the December night.

Friday, December 10, 2010

McCartney and Fallon perform "Scrambled Eggs," the original placeholder lyrics for "Yesterday"

A special moment was added to the annals of musical trivia on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon when the host and the former Beatle performed "Scrambled Eggs," the nonsense lyrics McCartney originally used as a placeholder when composing "Yesterday," the most covered song in history. McCartney also sang his 1982 tribute to John Lennon, "Here Today."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A great day for Tundra Swans on Lake Mendota

A Great Day for Tundra Swans
For humans it's been pretty chilly for early December, about 20 degrees below normal lately, but the visiting Tundra Swans on Lake Mendota seemed to be enjoying it yesterday. The lake is starting to freeze over, but there are still large areas of open water for the swans to cavort in. Some glide majestically on the water, others bob under the water for food, and some stand on the ice preening. Another beautiful, sunny day in Swan World.

View Large On Black

Experimental biodegradable traffic calming island on Madison's Capitol Square

Experimental Biodegradable Traffic Calming Island on Capitol Square
It's there when it's slippery, but when they don't need it anymore, they just let it melt away. Cool!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Looking at the "vampire squid" reach out again while Matt Taibbi is on Wisconsin Public Radio

The Vampire Squid Reaches Out Again"You never stop growing" -- especially if you're Goldman Sachs. I had a truly surreal moment yesterday when listening to the Kathleen Dunn Show on Wisconsin Public Radio. Her guest was Rolling Stone's brilliant journalist Matt Taibbi, talking about his book on the financial meltdown, “Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America.” It was a great show. Taibbi was as good a talker as he is a writer, and that's saying a lot. Dunn was well-prepared, asked smart questions and wasn't afraid to express appropriate outrage. And the callers were even better than usual. You can download an mp3 here or stream the show here.

While I listened I was browsing through the New York Times and came across this new ad from Goldman Sachs, the "vampire squid" of Taibbi's title. I guess they're tired of laying low. Time to go after a new batch of suckers by dangling their version of the American Dream in front of them -- you know, "give us your money and watch it grow from the bunkbed days of your childhood to the 10-acre ranch of your future." Ironically, the ad seemed to confirm one of the things Taibbi was talking about: Why did Wall Street get away with it? One reason was that what they actually did was so complicated that the American public never really understood what happened to them. Still don't. And so it's starting all over again.


Two months ago on John Lennon's 70th birthday, Joan Baez -- who herself turns 70 in January -- sang "Imagine" as her second encore at the University of Wisconsin Union Theater in Madison. That's when I shot this video.

"Imagine" is the word that comes to mind on this melancholy anniversary. Of all the tragic and nightmarish killings of public figures in the last century, John Lennon's death 30 years ago today still seems the most senseless, leaving a void that has never been filled. Imagine if he had lived.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The war of the rich and their political allies against the rest of us, poor and middle class alike

You've got to see this powerful speech by Sen Bernie Sanders about the war of the rich and their political allies against the rest of us. Funny thing -- I didn't see this on the evening news. But C-SPAN and internet updates are better than nothing. Pass it on!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Underneath the Capitol holiday tree -- one more train for Scott Walker to try and kill?

One More Train for Scott Walker to Kill?
I took this photo under the holiday tree in the Capitol last year. Under the tree is this little electric train. Not exactly high speed rail, but it zips right around and delights kids of all ages.

The holiday tree lighting ceremony takes place this Friday, Dec. 3, presided over by Gov. James Doyle and First Lady Jessica Doyle, one of the last public acts of the Doyle administration before Scott Walker takes office in January.

Walker's objections to the outgoing governor's support of high speed rail are well known. State Rep. Mark Pocan wondered what would happen if Walker used the same reasoning about a lame duck governor whose party had been rejected at the polls presiding over the tree ceremony. It resulted in this hilarious post on Pocan's blog, in the form of a mock letter from Walker to Doyle. I especially liked the part about the train.
Finally, there is the matter of the train running around the tree. It must be stopped. It goes nowhere. It does not go there fast enough. Not enough people are riding on it. It is a boondoggle. I ask that you use it to fund roads and to reduce the deficit. Send it to any other community. Just make sure it no longer reaches Madison.
Next time Walker strolls through the Capitol, I do hope he notices the words written on the side of the engine, inside the Wisconsin map -- "Grow Wisconsin." You don't grow Wisconsin by dismantling our transportation infrastructure.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The shortest route between Chicago and Minneapolis if Scott Walker succeeds ...

... may run through Dubuque. If Wisconsin turns its back on high speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee -- and the federal funds that would almost entirely cover the cost -- then the Midwest High Speed Rail Network may well turn its back on Wisconsin. This should make even opponents of passenger rail stop and think, because the upgraded tracks would serve freight as well as passenger trains, and thus affect business as well as passenger transportation. If Scott Walker turns down the money and blocks the train, it will be one small (and probably illusory) step for Wisconsin taxpayers, and one giant step toward making Wisconsin a transportation and economic backwater. (Map courtesy of Mayor Dave's blog post.)

Isthmus dwellers of another sort

Goose Isthmus
Madison doesn't have the only isthmus dwellers around here. Canada geese huddled the other day on this ice isthmus between two small ponds of open water in a larger frozen pond, Tiedeman's Pond, Middleton.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Will "data driven journalism" empower journalists or replace them with content-generating robots?

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, was recently quoted as saying, "Data-driven journalism is the future." He was speaking in the wake of an unprecedented release of huge amounts of data about government spending in the UK, when he was asked who would possess the skill sets needed to analyze complex government databases.
"Journalists need to be data-savvy. These are the people whose jobs are to interpret what government is doing to the people. So it used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you'll do it that way some times. But now it's also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what's interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what's going on in the country."
It had a nice ring to it, and an almost utopian quality, evoking a vision of lots of highly skilled, tech-savvy investigative reporters wielding powerful database query techniques on behalf of the public, an intrepid army of modern-day I.F. Stones defending the public's right to know.

What Berners-Lee did not address were the economic imperatives and the business models of a newspaper industry that is yielding ground to the internet he helped popularize. For experienced, knowledgeable journalists to do what he is proposing is an expensive, labor-intensive undertaking, and that raises the question of who is going to pay for it. Our big newspaper organizations are doing what they can (think of the months that the NYT's team of journalists spent analyzing the "cablegate" documents from Wikileaks).

Outside the print media, you don't find a lot of this on the internet, where more and more of the public gets its news, and where the business model is very different. Publishers are usually looking for "content" that is free or as cheap as possible. It's important to keep down costs, because the web advertising on a screen doesn't bring in nearly what a page of print advertising does, so the content that accompanies it tends to be priced in proportion.

And that's why Berners-Lee's phrase, "data-driven journalism" is a two edged sword. Yes, intelligent investigation of data can result in powerful journalism. But "data-driven journalism" can also result in a race to the bottom, one that may increasingly dispense with journalists altogether.

One current example was mentioned in the NYT's Digital Domain blog the other day.
This month, StatSheet unveiled StatSheet Network, made up of separate Web sites for each of the 345 N.C.A.A. Division I men’s basketball teams. Beyond statistics galore, each site has what the company calls “automated content,” stories written entirely by software, including write-ups of the team’s games, past and future. With a joking wink, StatSheet’s founder, Robbie Allen, refers to these sites as the “Robot Army.”

Each team’s StatSheet Web site is located at a freestanding Web address, conveying the sense that it is wholly invested in the interests of that school’s fans. (To find a domain name, a fan first visits

The software is imbued with the smarts to flatter each particular team. The same statistics, documenting the same game, produce an entirely different write-up and headline at the opposing team’s page.
Here's an example, the site for the Wisconsin Badger. It's probably not going to sweep anybody off their feet, because the Badgers already get plenty of press coverage. But it's not meant to. These websites are really designed to draw traffic from smaller schools that don't get much press.

It all kind of makes sense, in its upside-down way. Great sports writers are artists. Not-so-great sports writers take game statistics and weave them together with formulaic clichés to create their stories. Why pay someone good money to write clichés when you can just give a robot a dictionary and a database? And when you think about it, there are lots of other areas where this approach would probably work.

What's it going to be? Will data-driven journalism take us to new heights, as Tim Berners-Lee hopes it will? Or will it be part of a new race to the bottom (line), with robots creating "good enough" content that drives out good journalism, the way bad money drives out good? Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Significant milestone in the Forever War sneaks up on a nation distracted by Black Friday

A nation of shoppers reached a significant milestone on Black Friday, one that had nothing to do with retail sales. Maybe that's why few people noticed. Nine years and 50 days -- that's how long the Soviet Union was in Afghanistan. On Friday the U.S. tied that modern-day record. News stories announcing it were discreetly tucked into Thanksgiving Day newspapers, between the shopping inserts. Starting today, we're working on a new record.

The Soviet Union's occupation of "the graveyard of empires" was far more massive and brutal than anything the U.S. has contemplated, and still it failed, paving the way for the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. The expense of the war, in lives and rubles, the sense of futility and the widespread cynicism resulting from the war gave the house of cards that was the Soviet Union a final shove and it collapsed.

Although the war in Afghanistan is our longest in the new century, it's still short of the record set by Vietnam. But we're working on it. And events like the recent negotiations with a con man posing as a high-ranking Taliban emissary suggest we'll be there for some time. If you don't know what you're dealing with, it's hard to know how to get out of it.

Hint of winter as Madison's lakes start to freeze

Lake Wingra Starts to Freeze Over Along the Shore
Nothing makes ice look colder than a bit of green. Whipped by wind and waves as temperatures plummeted the last few days, these stalks of seaweed tore loose from the bottom of Lake Wingra and ended up on top of the ice instead of sheltering underneath it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Dark underside of the American Dream

Black Friday, the Dark Side of the American Dream

We want to save! We want more bright new shiny things, we want them cheap -- and we want them now -- or if not now, as early as 3:00 a.m. on Black Friday (your mileage may vary).

If the only way to bridge the huge gap between our insatiable desires and our limited means is to outsource the production to the absolutely cheapest producers elsewhere, well then, of course we'll outsource. The consumer is king, and the consumer wants to save, wants low prices at any cost. And so we've been hollowing out our economy to feather our nests, and now we wonder what happened.

The day after Thanksgiving is the biggest retail day of the year. It seems strangely symbolic that we call it Black Friday -- a term that has been used in connection with financial crises since the mid-19th century.-- almost as if there's a widespread awareness that there's something unsustainable here. The favorite way to deal with it seems to be to stop thinking and keep shopping.

Thanksgiving has marked the beginning of the holiday shopping season for a long time now, taking on its modern form in 1939, when FDR controversially moved Thanksgiving up a week to its current date in response to merchant dismay about that year's late Thanksgiving and short shopping season. The day after Thanksgiving has always had a lot of traffic, but it used to be about window shopping as much as actual shopping. Crowds occasionally got out of hand, and the term Black Friday started to be used in that connection (it wasn't until later that the explanation that this is when retailers begin to break into the black came into widespread use).

Still, in the years before 9/11, Black Friday was no higher than fifth in total sales volume on the retail calendar. In 2002 it moved up to second place, and only since 2005 has it actually been the number one day in retail sales volume.

George Bush told us to go shopping, and as a nation, we seem to have taken his words to heart. How long we can afford to keep doing so is another question.

Update while the night is young: Thanks to Chris Norris for the link to this Madison Police Department Incident Report.
On 11/26/10, several hundred shoppers were waiting in line for the Toys R Us store to open when a 21 year old woman attempted to move to the front of the line. She was confronted by numerous shoppers and in turn she made threats to retrieve a gun and shoot the shoppers. No gun was found and the suspect was arrested for disorderly conduct and taken to the Dane County Jail.
This happened about 10:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. Couldn't people at least wait until Friday to start with the craziness?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The bison are ready for Thanksgiving

The Bison Are Ready for Thanksgiving
Bison Prairie Gateway, Midvale Heights, at the intersection of S. Midvale Blvd. and the Southwest Bike Path. The sculptures by artist Bill Grover commemorate the fact that Madison was at the northeastern edge of the North American bison's range and at the edge of the tallgrass prairie that provided the habitat for the bison. More information. There's also a video of the construction of the gateway.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tattered hopes in black and white

Tattered Hopes
I was downtown yesterday afternoon and passed the now-deserted Madison campaign office of Senator Russ Feingold on W. Mifflin St. We're going to miss him. There was something so desolate and poignant about the empty room in the slanting, late afternoon sunlight, with the campaign's text address still painted on the window and its shadow falling on the back wall.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Crazy, unseasonable weather this afternoon

Crazy Weather
Sun, dark clouds, 64 degrees, rolling thunder and tornado watch for Dane County until 6:00 p.m. as a low pressure front came racing through from the southwest. Strange -- especially for late November. (A few minutes after this, it was pouring rain with a bit of hail. And a few minutes after that, the sun was out again.)

Pulitzer Prize-winning NYT photographer puts Hipstamatic war photos on the front page

Apparently I'm not the only person who can't resist shooting with the Hipstamatic photo app for the iPhone, even when he has a "real" camera available. Damon Winter, a staff photographer for the New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for his photos of the Obama campaign, landed these Hipstamatic images from Afghanistan on the front page of the NYT today.

It's not as if Winter wasn't carrying lots of conventional photojournalistic gear. He had a Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital single lens reflex, which he used to shoot stills and video. But, as he explains in the NYT's Lens blog, the Hipstamatic had its own appeal.
But it happens that Mr. Winter quickly realized — after trying a few shots — that his iPhone would be an effective way to capture the day-to-day trials of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in northern Afghanistan.

“Composing with the iPhone is more casual and less deliberate,” Mr. Winter said. “And the soldiers often take photos of each other with their phones, so they were more comfortable than if I had my regular camera.”

Mr. Winter even found himself taking a few iPhone pictures during firefights while he was shooting video with his single-lens reflex (a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, as long as we’re on the subject). The Hipstamatic app forced him to wait about 10 seconds between photos, so each one had to count.
That's an interesting point about the 10-second delay with the Hipstamatic, something I've found true as well. (There's not much of a delay when shooting low-res pictures for web use, but it does take the Hipstamatic about 10 seconds to do all the processing for a high-res image that makes full use of the camera's resolution.)

In 10 seconds, a conventional modern photojournalist might shoot dozens of images of an important scene in order to make sure they captured just the right instant. Winter is right -- the delay forces you think about what your are doing, and fosters a much more deliberate sort of photography. It's like going back to a much earlier era in photography, when Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, did not have access to motor drives, burst modes, or even rapid advance levers. He had to advance the film by winding the film-advance knob by hand. It didn't take 10 seconds, but it did preclude getting a second shot of "the decisive moment." It forced him to focus his attention.

There's an extended slideshow of nineteen of Winter's Hipstamatic images at the Lens blog. Take a look -- they're excellent.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Grim Reaper came to West Wilson Street and shared his to-do list with the train rally

Death Brings a List of Things to Kill to the Save the Train Rally
The Grim Reaper came to Madison and was gracious enough to share some ideas this afternoon with the Sierra Club of Wisconsin's Save the Train Action, one of many around the state. The guy's an expert; he knows how to kill. The way he figures it, why should Scott Walker stop with the train? Kill jobs! Kill healthcare! With just a little effort, a little economy of scale, we can kill them all!

Scott, Honey, Take the Train Money!Several hundred people who thought trying to save the train was more important than staying home and watching the Badgers roll over the Wolverines gathered at the foot of South Hancock Street in the little plaza overlooking the railroad tracks to cheer on speakers, hold up signs and listen to the Raging Grannies sing. I especially liked the sign that read, "Scott, honey, take the train money!" If you agree it's only sane to build the train, call Governor-Elect Scott Walker's office at 608-261-9200 and let him know.

Friday, November 19, 2010

TSA has a new motto

TSA Has a New Motto
With the help of anonymous sources at TSA, LFH was able to get an advance copy of the new signage. Are Americans so frightened -- and so forgetful of their constitutional rights -- that they'll put up with it? Your guess is as good as mine.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My latest camera is the Hipstamatic for the iPhone. My first was an Ansco Shur Shot Box Camera.

My Latest Camera Has a Tiny Viewfinder. So Did My First.
Both have tiny viewfinders. I'm starting to think that's part of their appeal, both in the remembered past and in the present as well -- and that the finder that you have to squint to use is less of a bug than a feature.

I loved that simple old Ansco Shur Shot with the black stripes and the two "eyes" on the front, one for each finder -- one for taking vertical pictures, the default option, and the other for taking horizontal ones. And the only spot of color on the whole camera, the bright red shutter button, which triggered the camera's magic with a satisfying "clack." Oddly enough, the lens was behind the shutter, basically a spring-loaded metal disk with an aperture that was pulled in front of the lens to give a 1/60-sec exposure.

If you took the back off and held the camera up to the light without film and tripped the shutter, you could see the dark mysteries of photography briefly illuminated by that quick flash of light. The viewfinders, while small, were the most magical of all. Partly it was the magic of the internal mirrors reflecting the image from the "eyes" in front, which allowed you to look down to see straight ahead. But there was also the magic of the tiny, crystalline image itself, the reverse magnifying glass effect that recreated the world in miniature. An optical version of the kick we get out of looking at individual frames of movie film.

As a kid, I took my first picture with the Shur Shot. I pushed it right in the face of a goat standing at a fence waiting to be fed. I got a completely blurry image as a result, memorably teaching me that my fixed-focus lens wasn't very sharp at less than six feet. The second photo I remember was of an ice boat regatta on Lake Monona, thrilling to watch in person, reduced to a series of nearly invisible specks on the print. From that I learned about photographic scale, about how the camera sees differently from the human eye, and how it takes a telephoto lens to photograph action at a distance the way we can clearly see it with our eyes. Step by step, my trusty box camera and I taught ourselves about photography.

Paradoxically, the tiny size of the finder windows had a lot to do with how I learned photography. With modern cameras, we tend to compose our pictures in the finder -- whether in the brightline viewfinder of a rangefinder film camera, the through-the-lens image of a single lens reflex, film or digital, or more often, the LCD screen of a digital-point-and-shoot. The camera does a lot of the work, and what we see is (usually) what we get.

It was different with the Ansco. You couldn't compose the image in the viewfinder; it was too small. It was merely an approximate pointing device. You had to imagine the picture. You had to see it in your mind's eye. And that's an intensive process that creates fun and emotionally involving.

I've had more sheer fun with the Hipstamatic app than with any camera in years, which is strange, when you think about it. After all, the "Hipsta" is just a series of filters -- cutely named different "lenses" and "films" -- overlaid on the IPhone's camera system. And it takes away the iPhone's excellent full-screen finder and replaces it with a little window that's only slightly bigger than those tiny finders on the Ansco. Matter of fact it's about the size of the finder on the Brownie Hawkeye, that Populuxe design classic of the Fifties that was probably the single best selling model of the box camera era.

The Hipstamatic's filters create a variety of effects that can add graphic oomph to almost any photo. But that speaks to the results. What makes it so fun and almost addictive to actually use? I think it has a lot to do with what it shares with my old Ansco. The limitations of the finder mean you have to previsualize your image, or at least have a rough idea in your mind's eye of what you're going for. You're sure not going to find it staring back at you from the finder.

The lack of a zoom forces you to move around and approach your subject physically in a way that's started to disappear from modern photography (DSLR shooters get a similar pleasure from shooting with a prime lens).

Finally, learning to work within the limits of your equipment boosts creativity, as I found with the Ansco and the ice boats. If you want to shoot ice boats with a Hipstamatic, you'll have to get close. And if you do get close, you just might decide to shoot a detail of sunlight flashing on a boat's blade instead, or perhaps just the texture of the ice in the winter sun, and forget all about the race, and that's OK too.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I still want to be a fireman when I grow up. Since that seems unlikely, I take photos instead.

Their Work Here Is Done
The kid in me who never grew up is fascinated by everything having to do with fire. I'd really like to be a fireman when I grow up, but since, with the passage of time, that seems increasingly unlikely, I have to content myself with being a gawker instead -- or, as I prefer to put it, a photographer.

A whole mechanized division of fire trucks and emergency vehicles converged on these apartment building at Wingra Park and Arbor Drive last night and then just sat, lights flashing. engines running, but not much happening. I was drawn like a moth to a flame, even though there were no flames to be seen.

Honda by FirelightWhile the firefighters were inside, I took of and around the fire engines. I loved the way this Honda bike glowed in the firelight. Eventually the firefighters exited the building, pulling an exhaust fan. I don't know, but I imagine there was a kitchen fire or something like that, quickly put out, and then they spent the rest of their time their double and triple-checking that the fire had not spread to the walls. They may have been remembering that these apartments replaced an earlier building that was gutted by fire about 30 years ago.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Hiawatha's Photographing" by Lewis Carroll (poetry reading)

This is amazing on so many levels. First, it describes in hilarious detail the travails of any photographer who has ever taken photos of a group of people (though with more arcane equipment). It's a wonderful parody of "Hiawatha." And it's by a great English writer who was also an accomplished photographer, though one with a fondness for young girls has subjects that has raised many a modern eyebrow.

And it's part of a great poetry channel on YouTube. The reader has posted nearly a 1,000 readings of many of the great poems in the language. Sometimes you want to be read to, rather than reading, and this is perfect.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Historic Iowa County chapel that was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988

I took this photo of a white chapel isolated against a hillside of autumn color on a drive last month, but I was mostly interested in the fall colors and didn't take notes. All I remembered was that it was west of Madison. So when a viewer of the picture on Flickr asked where it was exactly, I was stumped. But I went back to the photos I took that day and enlarged another image of the chapel shot at closer range. I was able to make out the name: Hyde Chapel. It's in Ridgeway, 1 mile south of County Highway H on County Highway T (not far from Hyde's Mill). Turns out, it has a pretty interesting history.
Nestled against a backdrop of glorious Wisconsin countryside Hyde Chapel is deeply rooted in the history of Iowa County. Originally known as the Mill Creek Church, the Chapel was built in 1861, instituted on January 14, 1862 and proudly inducted into the National Registry of Historic Places on October 13, 1988.

Situated on 40 acres in an area originally called the Mill Creek Valley, Hyde Chapel stands adjacent to a small cemetery that precedes it. While covenants from the Congregational Churches of Wisconsin were originally adopted, the church was always open to people of various faiths. The cemetery bears testimony as Congregationalists, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists and Catholics who worshipped here together lay buried.
There's more information at the Hyde Chapel website.

Seeing This Troubled World in a Madison shop window and thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt

A View of This Troubled World in a Madison Shop Window
Saw this in the windows of JTaylor's Galleries on the Capitol Square. I was curious about the book. Turns out Eleanor Roosevelt wrote it in 1938. You can sample This Troubled World on the internet. Some excerpts:
The newspapers these days are becoming more and more painful. I was reading my morning papers on the train not so long ago, and looked up with a feeling of desperation. Up and down the car people were reading, yet no one seemed excited.

To me the whole situation seems intolerable. We face today a world filled with suspicion and hatred.

[. . .]

The people who settled in New England came here for religious freedom, but religious freedom to them meant freedom only for their kind of religion. They were not going to be any more liberal to others who differed with them in this new country, than others had been with them in the countries from which they came. This attitude seems to be our attitude in many situations today.
72 years later, the world seems more troubled than ever. The problems are bigger. And our leaders seem smaller.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Taming shadows at the Milwaukee Art Museum in the camera, which also happens to be a phone

Quadracci Pavilion Lobby
Recently took this photo of the Quadracci Pavilion by Santiago Calatrava at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Another example of how well the iPhone 4's HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode works with certain scenes. Without it, the photo just shows three pools of light floating in distractingly dark shadows. This is more like what the human eye, with its much greater dynamic range, sees.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's all about the will of the people -- until it isn't

I'm enjoying watching the the display of hypocrisy in Alaska, where the Tea Party Senate candidate is doing everything he can to keep the write-in vote from being counted. It's all about the will of the people. Until they vote against you. Then it's all about trying to seize power and hold onto it. An old, old story.

What's that big sculpture in front of the downtown library?

It's a hammered copper sculpture by artist O. V. Shaffer called Hieroglyph , and this is a detail. Located in the courtyard at the entrance of the Madison Public Library downtown, it's always been one of my favorite works of public art in Madison. In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal in 1964, the artist talked about his work:
The sculpture attempts to symbolize the timelessness of knowledge and suggest the mysterious quietude of a seeking spirit. It is as though the past and the future of mankind were contained within these 'walls.'

A large undeciphered form looms flat and bold as one approaches from the steps, even tipping slightly forward as he walks beside it. On either side, a large crevice opens up, suggesting the canyon walls and caves upon which man has recorded in painting and hieroglyphics a part of what he knew.

The side facing the window wall is reminiscent of pillars and curved capitals or monuments, implying another kind of knowledge. Moving between these two forms is a figure which seems to become a part of the sculpture.

On the other side, another figure appears to emerge from an opening, yet it is also a fragment or frieze, symbolic of the 'voices of silence' which come down to us from past civilizations and still 'speak.'
Does the sculpture communicate all this to the average visitor? Perhaps not, but I'm fond of it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

We always knew they were beautiful, but now we also know how they drink

We Always Knew They Were Beautiful, But Now We Know How They Drink
Have you ever wondered how cats drink? I sure have. It was always a mystery. A dog will roll up its big tongue into more or less the shape of a cup, and then slurp that up (noisily). Cats don't do that. They just make that discreet little lappity-lap sound, and it's hard to see what they're really doing. They almost seem to ingest water through osmosis.

Until recently, nobody knew. Now science has provided the answer. And it's amazing. The NYT reports that a group of engineers published a paper today that clears up the mystery.
Writing in Thursday’s issue of Science, the four engineers report that the cat’s lapping method depends on its instinctive ability to calculate the balance between opposing gravitational and inertial forces.

What happens is that the cat darts out its tongue, curving the upper side downward so that the tip lightly touches the surface of the water. The tongue is then pulled upward at high speed, drawing a column of water up behind it. Just at the moment that gravity finally overcomes the upward rush of the water and starts to pull the column down — snap! The cat’s jaws have closed over the jet of water and swallowed it.

The cat laps four times a second — too fast for the human eye to see but a blur — and its tongue moves at a speed of one meter per second.
For a high-speed video of how this works, check out the NYT's story. The video also contains an interview with the researchers.

The researchers developed a formula that predicts how fast a cat, depending on body size, should lap to get the maximum amount of water. They then observed felines of various sizes. Lions, leopards, jaguars and ocelots all lapped at the predicted speeds for maximizing their water intake. It's a complex problem -- and one that that evolution figured out long before human science did.

The best way to honor our veterns is to bring them home and end the Forever War

Honor Our Vets by Bringing Them Home and Ending the Forever War
I took this photograph on Veterans Day two years ago and used it in a blog post about the Veterans for Peace Memorial Mile at Forest Hills Cemetery, which is the resting place for hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as veterans who served in the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Viet Nam and the first Gulf War. The week of Veterans Day, they were joined by symbolic grave markers representing the Americans who have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two years later, nothing has changed. Our pursuit in Afghanistan makes no more sense than it did two years ago, In some ways we're going backwards. There's talk now of American troops staying until at least 2014. Meanwhile, the Deficit Reduction Commission is talking about having to reduce VA benefits. We owe our vets more than that. Politicians are quick to commit other people's lives, and then have no idea how to get out of the mess they started. We owe those who have given so much all honor, respect, and the best of benefits. And above all, we owe it to them to make sure that the Forever War does not, in fact, go on forever.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nothing brightens up an old sketchbook like a Hipstamatic

Nothing Brightens Up an Old Sketchbook Like a Hipstamatic
Noodling around with the iPhone 4 while going through some old sketchbboks. This is a semi-abstract watercolor I did in 1996, loosely inspired by Partington Cove in Big Sur, and even more loosely inspired by the watercolors of Henry Miller. Note: The colors in the original aren't nearly as vibrant as they became once the Hipstamatic did its magic. Thanks Hipsta!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Keep your eyes open. Slow down. Wear seatbelt. Use horn. And stay in your lane.

Keep Your Eyes Open. Slow Down. Wear Seatbelt. Use Horn.
That time of year again. Time to repost the Photoshop recreation of my own near miss a few years ago.

Abstract sculpture on the Milwaukee lakefront by Alexander Liberman, a famous Vogue art director

One of my favorite works at the Milwaukee Art Museum, "Argo," by Alexander Liberman -- a fascinating figure who was better known as the long-time art director of Vogue during the heyday of Penn and Avedon and later editorial director of the entire Condes Nast magazine empire. He knew everyone in the arts, was an accomplished painter and photographer, and late in life, took up making these large, elegant abstract steel sculptures. More information in this earlier post.

Old Moon in the new Moon's arms

Old Moon in the New Moon's Arms
It was so clear last night. A sharply defined crescent Moon floated in the evening sky, with the dark part of the Moon clearly illuminated by earthlight -- the "old Moon in the new Moon's arms," as the saying goes. Photographed in Wingra Park, f/5.6, 2 sec. -2 EV exposure comp. Handheld, but braced against a tree.

Monday, November 08, 2010

"Standing Woman" and "Strolling Man" -- iPhone 4 photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum

"Standing Woman" and Strolling Man
I had a chance to put my new iPhone 4 camera through its paces at the Milwaukee Art Museum yesterday. In the spectacular corridor of the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, I was struck by the contrast between the monumentality of the Gaston Lachaise bronze, "Standing Woman," and the mobility of the walking figure -- and also the way the converging lines pulled them together.

I was using the iPhone 4's HDR feature because without it the slanting late afternoon shadows were much too pronounced and dominated the picture. Coincidentally, I found a "bug" that's really a feature. If you look at the large size of this photo, you'll see that the moving figure is triple-exposed, giving it an almost Cubist quality that I like. This was caused by the way the HDR mode works. It shoots three images in rapid succession -- exposed for shadows, midtones and highlights -- and then merges them in processing to extend the dynamic range of the photograph. But, of course, when a subject is moving, the different images can't really be merged. They just become overlays piled on top of each other. On the one hand, this is why HDR is usually not shot with moving subjects. On the other hand, it suggests some really cool special effects opportunities -- in which multiple exposures of a rapidly moving subject appear against a single, nonmoving background. Can't wait to try it deliberately.

Milwaukee Art MuseumI also stepped outside and took some photos of Santiago Calatrava's magnificent structure in the fading light of the late afternoon sun. This is straight from the iPhone, uncropped and unprocessed. Cell phone photos sure aren't what they used to be. I used my mobile Flickr app to upload this photo to the internet right on the spot, standing outside the museum. It all seemed like magic to me -- Calatrava's striking architecture, the iPhone itself, and being able to upload photos to the intertubes from anywhere.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Falling Back to Standard Time

Standard Time
The trees shed the last of their leaves and we set back our clocks -- if we remember. Or if our cell phones remember. Wrist watches are another matter. Setting the time on my Timex Ironman involves so many little tiny buttons pushed in such completely nonintuitive fashion and I do it so rarely that I never can remember the instructions or the sequence. I used to carry the directions in my wallet to be ready for these moments, but it got to be too bulky, so I tossed the big, multi-folded sheet with all the fine print. Now I look up the instructions on the internet with my smart phone. Should I toss the Timex, too? No, never. It's a little security bracelet around my wrist, an amulet warding off the ravages of time.

Who cares about gas prices? It's donut prices that count. America gets its energy from junk calories.

Who Cares about Gas Prices? It's Donut Prices That Count.
Sometimes it seems as if America runs on cheap donuts. A coworker once put it this way, "As long as I'm taking diabetes medication, I might as well live a little -- pass the donuts!" Seems to be a widely shared sentiment.

Open Pantry, Regent and Randall, Madison. (No donuts were harmed, or even consumed, in the making of this picture.)

Friday, November 05, 2010

Did you know there's a Tupalo at the UW-Madison Arboretum and it's deep red and gorgeous?

Tupelo TreeThey were talking on the radio about the Tupelo tree next to the Visitor Center at the UW-Madison Arboretum, so we decided to run over and catch some of the color before it disappears. A sign notes this is a tupelo or black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). It was planted in 1956 and is at the northwestern edge of its range here in southern Wisconsin. It has a chilly autumnal beauty this time of year, but of course this is what I think of when I hear the word Tupelo.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Talk about scary, and I don't mean Halloween

Talk about Scary, and I Don't Mean Halloween
The pumpkins at this house on Monroe Street that I passed on the way to the grocery store tonight are still all lit up. But now it doesn't look like Halloween so much as a picture of election night, when a lot of scary stuff was around and about in the streets of America. Trick or treat!

Note: This was shot with the iPhone 4 with HDR mode turned on (it helped bring out some of the detail in the house, which otherwise would have been dark). Minimally processed, colors warmed a bit and cropped slightly. Compare with the version I shot a few days ago with my Nikon P7000. The iPhone is definitely noisier, but these are pretty extreme conditions for a cell phone camera. I can't complain.

It's so boring to have a good, decent U.S. Senator

Wisconsin likes to elect good, decent progressives to the U.S. Senate. But then we get restless. Goodness can get boring. Same with intelligence. At first it's an asset, but then it gets irritating -- what, does he think he's better than us? Same with liberalism. It's cute in an underdog, but after awhile it just means you're a big-government-tax-and-spend-anti-business-weirdo who wants to take away our freedoms. And, of course, we get more and more suspicious as time goes by. Isn't "public servant" an oxymoron? If someone really enjoys public service and standing up for our interests in Washington, isn't there something wrong with him? Maybe he's just been in Washington too long. That's why, after three terms, we like to kick them out and elect a yahoo conservative political hack just to stir things up. Who knows, it might do some good. Worth a try. Kick the bum out. Get somebody new.

It happened to Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day and an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He was a nationally known representative of all that was best in the progressive Wisconsin political tradition. He had served three terms in the Senate after serving as governor, and it looked as if he would remain there for many years. But Wisconsin voters decided three terms was enough and kicked him out in 1980 -- in favor of the forgettable Bob Kasten.

Now Russ Feingold. Yes, it's so boring to have a good Senator.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Beautiful day for a miracle

Beautiful Day for a Miracle
Can common sense and decency actually prevail? It won't happen on its own. Make it happen.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Vote as if your life depends on it. Because it does. And here' s why it's not over until it's over.

Vote As If Your Life Depends On It. Because It Does.
In case you're thinking there's no point because it's hopeless and the good guys (and gals) are gonna get hammered on election day, here are some alternative scenarios to help you get out of bed in the morning and go to the polls and send a message that democracy is not for sale.

First, there are Nate Silver's 5 Reasons Democrats Could Beat the Polls and Hold the House from his Five ThirtyEight New York Times polling blog, which has been predicting for weeks that Republicans are likely to win control of the House of Representatives. Silver considers some reasons -- not likely, but possible -- that this might not happen after all. They mostly involve systemic polling error and include:
1. The cellphone effect.
2. The ‘robopoll’ effect.
3. Some likely voter models, particularly Gallup’s, may “crowd out” Democratic voters.
4. Democrats probably have better turnout operations.
5. The consensus view of Democratic doom is not on such sound footing as it seems.
Silver's discussion of these points makes for interesting reading. Check it out here. Again he's not saying the Democrats won't lose seats. And he's not saying they're likely to hold the House. But he's saying it's possible they will. Turnout will play a big part in determining the outcome.

Then there's the question, which election are we comparing this to, anyhow? The media have been full of stories about comparisons to 1994, the first midterm election of the Clinton presidency, the one in which Newt Gingrich rode a wave of voter backlash to control of the House with the help of a group of entering freshmen even more rigidly right-wing than he was. But why 1994?

Some observers say 1934 is a much better comparison. The nation was in a Depression that started on a Republican administration's watch, FDR seemed overwhelmed and uncertain, and Republicans were clamoring for more of the same policies -- budget cuts, tax cuts for the rich, less regulation, etc. -- that had brought on the Depression in the first place. People were suffering, and they were angry. But who were they angry at? Not Roosevelt, it turned out. Although the Democrats had feared losing seats in Congress, they scored the biggest midterm election victory ever. Michael J. Wilson recalled this history recently in Huffington Post.
We can look back to history for guidance on the message and results for the 2010 election. But looking back only to 1994 is a striking misread of history, and leads back to 1929 thinking.
Again, it all depends on turnout.

Here in Wisconsin, there's only one way a rich manufacturer and political neophyte who has been drinking too much tea and thinks sunspots are melting the polar icecaps can defeat Russ Feingold, one of the great progressive voices in the U.S. Senate. That's if the people who know better stay home. There's a time and a place to be a couch potato, but this isn't it.